After a busy first year as the eighth president of Cleveland State University, President Laura Bloomberg reflects on the university’s recent feats, challenges and controversies, including the new marketing campaign and contentious free speech on campus policy at CSU.
Stepping into the office last year, just as the university was beginning to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, Bloomberg found one of the biggest challenges was how to bring everyone back as a united, strong community.
“Some of the challenges weren’t so specific that you could name–renaming a college or realigning a college–they were more ways of being,” Bloomberg shared with The Cauldron in an interview on Wednesday, Sept. 13. “And one of them is, how do we come back? How do we come back together on a campus after being apart during a pandemic?
From a rise in anxiety and depression to a loss of belonging, the pandemic challenged the spirit of higher education all across the world. However, those challenges, added Bloomberg, should also be seen as newfound opportunities to “think about our student scholars as whole people” and enhance everyone’s sense of community.
Bloomberg also took pride in the academic success in her first year, including a high cumulative GPA among student athletes, as well as applauded staff and faculty for effectively realigning the university’s colleges—a key component of CSU 2.0—which, according to Bloomberg, was a difficult feat behind the scenes.
The renaming of the university’s College of Law was another point of pride for not just Bloomberg, but the Board of Trustees, as they worked together to tackle a major community concern and made a decision they felt was best.
With the fall 2023 semester in full swing, Bloomberg is championing success by design, a motto that not only preaches wanting success, but defining and planning for success.
“That’s why we set up the new Division of Student Belonging and Success, to very specifically say ‘we see you,’” said Bloomberg. “We know that students who feel like they belong here are more likely to be successful here when we say ‘we understand that you need to feel welcomed in this community to be a good scholar in this community.’ That, to me, is an example of success by design.”
Marketing Campaign and Master Plan
CSU launched its new marketing campaign in January, featuring a new logo and tagline that focuses on not only the university’s location, but its sense of pride.
“For us to be able to highlight the skyline of Cleveland in our CSU brand logo is really invaluable,” said Bloomberg “And then to use the line ‘we are CSU,’ which seems so simple, but it is a statement of pride.”
The tagline allows the CSU community to not “be branded by somebody else” and seeks to promote CSU as a school of many assets, not just a commuter or residential or urban school, explained Bloomberg.
“We’re more than that,” she said.
The launch of the new marketing campaign was one of many CSU 2.0 initiatives Bloomberg highlighted in her inaugural address. Another initiative was the campus master plan, part of which seeks to enrich residential and student life.
Last spring, CSU purchased The Edge and The Langston apartment complexes as the next phase for expanding on-campus housing. With those new purchases came a rise in housing and on-campus costs, much of which has concerned CSU students.
Starting fall 2023, students living on campus are now required to purchase a meal plan, the cheapest of which is $1,150 per semester. However, many on-campus students also already have a full kitchenette inside their dorms. CSU Student Government Association (SGA) even passed a resolution in April 2023 seeking meal plan waivers in light of this change.
Another concern came from dormers and commuters alike in light of the changes made to Viking Marketplace. Students who don’t have a meal plan can no longer access the Viking Marketplace for free, leaving many students feeling equally confused and excluded.
Bloomberg discussed the extreme high demand that eventually exceeded the Viking Marketplace’s capacity to seat people, which was one of the reasons for the dining hall innovation.
“So, over the summer, we expanded the capacity, but then you have to control the ingress and egress, people coming in and coming out, so that design was changed,” said Bloomberg.
Rising costs of tuition and on-campus living, coupled with the changes in the dining hall, have all been major changes of concern for the CSU student community. However, Bloomberg supports it.
“It is leveling the playing field. And that doesn’t sit well with some people, I acknowledge that, but I support this,” began Bloomberg. “And I support it because I have seen, nationally, when something is implemented like this on a college campus, it creates a lot of angst when it’s first implemented because it’s something new, for about a year—because the story of what things used to be is still there—but after a while, it becomes known. So then it’s a buy or beware.”
Diversity, Equality and Inclusion
In spite of challenges made against diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) in higher education, Bloomberg is an outspoken supporter.
“When we’re diverse as a community, across multiple dimensions, we’re smarter,” Bloomberg said.
In the spring, Bloomberg sat down with student media to discuss the Higher Education Enhancement Act, otherwise known as Senate Bill 83, and her disagreements with the bill. She had also met with Ohio State Senator and S.B. 83 sponsor Jerry Cirino to discuss those differences.
“He [Cirino] knows that I have fundamental concerns with this bill,” shared Bloomberg. “I also think that we can’t have our heads in the sand in higher education. There are people who are really questioning the fundamental value proposition of higher education.”
One of the highly contentious components of S.B. 83 seeks to no longer make DEI courses or programs mandatory in Ohio’s higher education institutions.
While Bloomberg believes that the bill isn’t a direct threat to diversity, she feels its spirit has concerning implications.
“My argument is that when you have a foot in the door of saying ‘this is so fundamentally flawed that it shouldn’t be mandatory,’ you are sending a signal about what you think about the importance of diversity and inclusion,” said Bloomberg. “So, by the letter of the law, I would have to say no [that it’s not a threat]. By the spirit of the law and the signals that it sends, yes, I do believe it harms it [DEI].”
She also discussed the importance of language when having conversations on diversity.
“When we say ‘a diverse candidate,’ that’s just wrong. We’re diverse as a community,” said Bloomberg. “Everybody is who they are, and if we talk about ‘a diverse candidate,’ what we’re really talking about is centering whiteness. ‘You’re a diverse candidate because you’re not white.’ I just fundamentally reject that.”
CSU continues to launch programs and projects that promote diversity in higher education and beyond. At the start of the academic year, the university announced Project Unite, a program that seeks to recruit a diverse and culturally responsive set of teaching candidates in K-12 education.
Bloomberg is deeply excited about this project, given that the nation faces a teaching crisis.
College and university enrollment across the state and country has declined severely in light of the pandemic, with CSU being no exception.
Between fall 2021 and fall 2022, the university saw a 6.1% drop in enrollment, and as of fall 2023, 14,118 students are enrolled at CSU. These declining demographics are projected to continue now and through 2027, which will result in reduced expenses.
Students have felt the decline in low enrollment due to course cancellations and harsh cuts in funding of student organizations and more.
CSU reserves the right to cancel a course if it doesn’t fulfill a certain level of enrollment, which has inconvenienced students on their path to graduation.
“Where I came from, we were far more rigid in applying that policy,” shared Bloomberg. “And we’ve been pretty loose on applying that policy here.”
While Bloomberg seeks to always promote the interests of the students, she admits that tough financial decisions have to be made and not everyone can be satisfied.
“I need, as the President, with my team of leaders as the cabinet, to go to [Board of Trustees] Chair [David] Reynolds and the board with a balanced budget every year,” said Bloomberg. “We’ve got to have a balanced budget, so there is a financial model that constrains what we do, and we can’t do everything.”
Enrollment is not the only factor at play, she added:
“We are looking very carefully at enrollment, recruitment. We’re also, candidly, needing to look at the ecosystem of Northeast Ohio, and whether every university needs to provide everything to all potential students. Is that feasible when our overall demographics are going down?”
Free Speech on Campus v. Harassment
CSU’s heavily controversial Free Speech on Campus policy has polarized administration and students, who continue to question free speech versus harassment on campus.
Last year, Alec Popivker of Cleveland Heights provoked massive student concern for his frequent anti-Palestinian demonstrations and speech in the campus courtyard. His speech included comparing Palestinians to Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.
His rhetoric not only made Palestinian and Muslim communities at CSU feel unsafe, but unheard and infuriated by the slow response of the administration.
Popivker, however, wasn’t permanently banned from campus grounds until February 2023, when CSU granted him a persona non grata (PNG) status after a hearing. The PNG status was on grounds of his theft of the Palestinian organization’s banner from the Student Center.
Bloomberg feels that the administration appropriately handled the situation, even though “things did not move, in that situation, at the speed that students would’ve wanted.”
When asked where she draws the line between free speech and harassment, Bloomberg didn’t answer.
“We did what we needed to do to make sure that he cannot be on campus anymore,” she reiterated.
Popivker has since made a return to the campus district, harassing Palestinian students on the public sidewalks. In light of the escalating violence in Palestine, students have expressed feeling unsafe from his presence once again.
The Cauldron reached out to the administration requesting comment from Bloomberg regarding his return, as well as what she will do to ensure the safety of CSU’s Palestinian community, but was referred to CSU PD.